week 9

Week 9 – Commerce, Coercion and America’s Empire

This week, we looked into the complex relationship between the U.S. and Latin America – the many shapes and sizes in which the North influenced the South, and all the justifications given by the American government for exerting its power in the continent starting in the 19th century.

Dawson highlights how influence and domination over Latin America was necessary if the US wanted to become a global power. However, that didn’t necessarily go with the ideals of freedom and self-determination that were pillars of American democracy, so there had to be some sort of pretext for their aspirations of control over the South. Their claims were that they were champions of democracy in the continent, but that hardly hid the fact that the main motivation was purely economical. The Panamanian independence is an example: the US funded rebel groups to fight against Colombian rule and declare independence, with the sole purpose of taking away the construction and control of the Panama Canal from Colombia. This gave the US extreme control over the region.

Still, American influence was very complex. Take the growing and selling of bananas, for example. United Fruit Company monopolized the production and selling of that commodity in countries like Guatemala, and while it developed infrastructure (in the form of roads, electricity etc) in that country, its employees worked in terrible conditions, subject to disease, alcohol abuse and violence. In addition, they owned a massive amount of land while only growing in a small part of it, raising questions of fair land and wealth distribution.

In 1945, after a coup overthrew the government and called for elections, the new president, Jacobo Arbenz, threatened to expropriate UFCO’s railroads, which lead the US to launch a propaganda campaign to paint him as threat to the nation, as well as impose trade sanctions. After Arbenz doubled down, introducing a law expropriating unused lands and redistributing them to peasants and paid a lower price for the lands than what UFCO saw fit, the US government trained a rebel group to overthrow the government.

This complex relationship is also seen in the cultural flow between the two regions, through which American products and their aura of innovation and progress were marketed to specific Latin American audiences by appealing to specific local tastes – highlighting just how intricate the web of influence and consumption was (and still is). For the discussion question, it could be interesting to consider how that influence stretched into current days, and how the optics of it has changed – do people view the US just as unfavourably, or has there been a change in the way American presence in Latin America is viewed?